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Virginia Beach History

Hampton Roads was heavily inhabited prior to European contact. Native Americans recognized the trade and fishing opportunities provided by the intersection of all those rivers, and maintained extensive communities throughout the Tidewater region. The 105 settlers of the Virginia Company, which established the first permanent British colony in North America, first set foot at Cape Henry in the area now designated First Landing State Park. These original settlers recognized the commerce and harborage opportunities afforded by the geography of Hampton Roads, so much so that after towns like Jamestown and Williamsburg—located farther inland—faded into obscurity, the Hampton Roads area grew.  In 1718, the pirate Blackbeard’s head was displayed here after the corsair was killed at Ocracoke Inlet just south off the North Carolina coast, and the French fleet that blockaded the British and helped force their surrender at Yorktown sailed through these waters in 1781. During the Civil War, Hampton Roads was the setting of numerous naval actions, including the famed Battle of Hampton Roads, the first shootout between steam-powered ironclad vessels. One of those ships, the USS Monitor, has been restored and sits in the Newport News Mariners’ Museum today. While shipping kept Norfolk growing, the area that is now Virginia Beach was relatively quiet until the 1890s and early-20th century, when guest houses, cottages and hotels began popping up along the seashore (the Barclay Cottage, restored and renovated, is a holdover from these early days). Virginia Beach continued to grow as a major East Coast resort throughout the 20th century, making efforts throughout to position itself as a family-friendly rather than party-heavy resort. The growth of the rail and highway system vastly increased the volume of visitors. But this period was not without controversy. The city faced difficulties in incorporating itself outside of growing Norfolk, and racial tensions, a legacy of the Civil Rights movement, were often fraught. Tensions between black college students and police came to a head during the 1989 Greekfest riots. Racial undertones to that conflict kept many black vacationers away from Virginia Beach for over a decade, although today the scars from that wound seem largely healed.

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